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Trying To Marry My Incarcerated Partner During COVID-19 Was A Nightmare, But Love Prevailed

In January of this year, I printed out Department of Corrections (DOC) Form 20-213: Marriage Application for Intended Spouse. 

Like any other official form, it asked me, “the intended spouse,” for my full legal name and birthday. On the next line, instead of asking for the full legal name of “the other intended spouse,” it read, “Offender Name.” In lieu of a birthday, I filled in his DOC number ― something my partner, Chris, has carried with him since he was first incarcerated at the age of 12.

I intended to marry the kindest, most creative and loving person I know, who also happens to be serving his 17th year of a 45-year prison sentence. Before we could even secure a marriage certificate like any free-world couple has to, we also had to go through the process of assembling our DOC marriage packet. 

The packet mostly consisted of me stating, in form after form, that I know why Chris is incarcerated and answering questions like, “How do [I] feel about marrying an offender?”

Having worked on Chris’ case for quite some time now, I know it like the back of my hand. I’ve even read his entire juvenile file — which, at 335 pages, is 100 pages longer than the dissertation I’m currently writing. 

In our society, “prison wives” are looked upon with a mixture of morbid curiosity and outright repulsion. Under the guise of “safety and security,” the criminal justice system is set up to tell us again and again: Prisoners are not human, prisoners are not lovable, prisoners are not “us.” How else can we as a society incarcerate 2.2 million people?

We are told constantly through media and education that all people in prison are irredeemable monsters. To fall in love with one of “them” disrupts that narrative. The unlovable suddenly become worthy of love.

In our society, ‘prison wives’ are looked upon with a mixture of morbid curiosity and outright repulsion.

In order to maintain the comforting feeling that what we’re doing to these people is justified because they are “other,” those of us who love incarcerated people are framed as broken and disturbed. 

DOC Form 20-213 even asks if we’ve had a past history of abuse. 

Unsurprisingly and concerningly, this repulsion toward people who love someone in prison extends to the DOC. They’ve erected a hostile bureaucratic labyrinth to try to deter people from marrying.

Yet to the chagrin of prison administrators, the Supreme Court has a pesky habit of ruling access to marriage a fundamental right. In fact, it is one of the few you do not lose upon incarceration. 

In the 1987 landmark decision Turner v. Safely, the Supreme Court ruled that the DOC could not block two incarcerated people from becoming married, even though the DOC could block them from being able to correspond once they became married. Marriage and its positive emotional and religious impact, the court reasoned, is a “fundamental” right. 

Much like just about everything else in this world, COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on this right for the 2.2 million people currently incarcerated in the United States. Prison marriage ceremonies take place during visits. Since mid-March, prison visits have been indefinitely suspended. 

In June, on the 53rd anniversary of Loving v. Virginia, a case that ruled anti-miscegenation laws unconstitutional on the basis that “marriage is one of the basic civil rights of man” and that it is “fundamental to our very existence and survival,” I reached out to DOC headquarters. At that point, it had been going on six months since Chris and I initiated our marriage application. While visits remained closed, the prison was now allowing for both religious ceremonies and legal visits. I wrote to inquire about the possibility of getting married separated by glass in a legal visit booth.

The author and her husband in the prison visit room before visits closed indefinitely due to COVID-19.

The right to marriage may seem frivolous in such dark times ― although the abundance of Zoom weddings and governor’s orders across the states allowing for the solemnization of marriages to occur over video conference indicate that even in the worst of times people want to be married ― but here’s what keeps me up at night: Incarcerated people are 550% more likely to get COVID-19 and 300% more likely to die of it.

Should Chris, god forbid, become deathly ill and we were not married, I would have no legal right to see him in the hospital. Should something happen to me, he would have no legal right to attend my funeral.  

I imagine there are many other couples across the country in this same situation. 

The response I got from DOC was that because virtual wedding ceremonies are not allowed by law in Washington state, where we both live, I have to wait until visitation resumes to become married. 

With that answer, Chris and I set off to lobby the governor to issue a proclamation allowing for the solemnization of marriages over video conference. New York and California had already issued these types of orders. 

On the day I was scheduled to lecture about the right to marriage in my “Sex, Rights, and Power” course, we got an email from the general counsel of the governor’s office letting us know the chief justice of the Washington Supreme Court had weighed in on this issue and that virtual ceremonies were now allowed. Luckily, since Washington prisons have video visits, the DOC already had the infrastructure to conduct these ceremonies.    

The author in front of the prison on her way to the wedding.

The author in front of the prison on her way to the wedding.

Elated, we reached out to DOC immediately with the good news. Within an hour, I got two responses: one from the head of the department saying that short video conference marriages seemed feasible, and another from a woman several levels below him saying that the marriage policy did not allow for “media coverage” during ceremonies and could therefore not be conducted over video visits. 

When I asked her to clarify about the policy, she asked me, “What’s the urgency that appears to be associated with this?” 

Asking us to justify our desire to be married is akin to asking someone to prove themselves enough of a believer to receive religious accommodations, something that is squarely illegal. Ironically, this woman is in charge of programming for prison families and has been married multiple times herself.  

When I asked that our correspondences remain over email instead of a phone call, she wrote back saying, “I am sorry you are not interested in speaking so I could hear your concerns and allow me to ask questions … Further correspondence will not be addressed regarding this issue.”

Loved ones of the incarcerated have come to know this form of bureaucratic bullying well. DOC staff use the thick maze of bureaucracy to torture families and the incarcerated with little to no oversight.

In one swift email, a public employee whose emails are subject to public records refused to correspond with me further because I would not go off the record.

Those who work in the department have a reductionist view of incarcerated people. Incarcerated people are not nuanced humans, but instead they are living embodiments of the worst mistake they’ve ever made — to view them as anything else would make their treatment repulsive.

The strange thing about these bureaucratic bullying tactics is that I truly believe some of the motivation is rooted in administrators thinking they’re saving us, the damaged women who marry men in prison, from making a grave mistake. 

Those who work in the department have a reductionist view of incarcerated people. Incarcerated people are not nuanced humans, but instead they are living embodiments of the worst mistake they’ve ever made ― to view them as anything else would make their treatment repulsive. DOC staff know the incarcerated. Prison wives do not. How could we? We don’t live with them like they do.

People like to say that you don’t really know someone until you’ve had to grocery shop with them in a crowded store on a weekday at 6 p.m. when you’re both hungry. Or had to tackle a sink full of dishes with them when you’re both tired. That may be true for most people. And while I do not know how promptly Chris washes the dishes in the sink — though judging from the frequency with which he discusses cleaning his cell, I suspect it’s more promptly than me — I know the true nature of his character when he’s confronted with the daily grind of an institution meant to break him.

I know his patience. How it withstands the new prison guard insisting he present his used toilet paper roll in exchange for a new one or risk a write-up; as if having more than one roll of toilet paper is a high-level security threat. 

I know his kindness in spaces where it is denied and discouraged. I’ve had men he’s locked up with tell me stories about how when their father or mother died, Chris looked after them, checked up on them, and even comforted them in the hallways, breaking prison policy that prohibits “offender contact” to give them a hug. 

I know his vulnerability, even though it takes an impossible amount of strength to show me. When the pain of missing each other becomes overwhelming and we cry together over the phone, he does so standing at a row of public pay phones with a hundred other men merely steps away. 

The author and her husband at their wedding in the prison visit room with their chaplain Brian Henry.

The author and her husband at their wedding in the prison visit room with their chaplain Brian Henry.

I do not need to know how he would react to a long line at the grocery store. I witness him every day live through the constant stress of an institution even 10,000 hungry trips to the grocery store and a million dirty dishes could not come close to replicating. You don’t really know someone until you’ve navigated the criminal legal system with him. Until you’ve been kept apart by arbitrary and unnecessarily punitive laws, and still found it was possible to experience intimacy and foster love. I know him. We know each other. 

It took another month and a call from a state senator to get DOC to change its mind and let us get married. We were finally married on Sept. 18

Even when it looked like DOC wasn’t going to allow us to get married, I knew we would make it through. Part of what keeps us so strong is our refusal to allow others to tell us we cannot and should not be in love.

It is a radical act for him to allow himself to be loved by me and for me to love him, despite the world telling us both that he is unlovable and that I am delusional. 

Love is radical in that it erodes distinctions between “us” and “them.” It’s the reason miscegenation and anti-same-sex marriage laws were so ardently upheld. If there is one thing history has taught us it is this: Love finds a way, past concrete, past barbed wire, and even past bureaucracies that put Kafka to shame.

Chelsea Moore is a Ph.D./J.D. Candidate at the University of Washington. She did her B.A. at Occidental College where she graduated Phi Beta Kappa. She is the co-founder of Look2Justice, an organization dedicated to transforming Washington state’s criminal legal system. Chelsea is happily married to journalist Chris Blackwell. When she is not working or visiting Chris, she can be found injuring herself on roller skates or chasing around her spunky geriatric dog Betsy who only has two teeth.

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